UNITED STATES—Most people wear their seat belts with no issues today. A long time ago it was a very different story. Seat belt laws have a history that is quite controversial.

When Was the First Seat Belt Law?

Wisconsin required seat belts in the front seats of vehicles in 1961. Many people don’t realize seat belts weren’t required for over 50 years. These early seat belts were often called lap belts [source].

A lap belt goes around the waist of the occupants of the vehicle. It stops them from flying out of the car. However, it does not protect their head and neck from whiplash.

The first federal seat belt law was enacted in 1968. It required all vehicles except for buses to have seat belts. These were the modern seat belts that protect the hips, waist, and torso. This was the first step in making vehicles safer.

This only required the vehicles to have the seat belt. It did not require the drivers or passengers to wear them. The first law to require a driver to wear a seat belt was in 1984. New York was the first state to require seat belts.

What Is the Difference Between Primary and Secondary Offenses?

Some states still don’t require seat belts. New Hampshire is one that doesn’t force adults to wear their seat belt while driving. The state has no enforceable law to do so.

15 other states only see seat belts as a “secondary offense.” This means that driving without a seat belt can’t be the reason for a traffic stop. If the driver gets stopped for speeding, the offense of not wearing a seat belt can add on.

Some of these states are:

  • New Jersey
  • Arizona
  • Massachusetts
  • Montana
  • Pennsylvania
  • Virginia

Arguments Against Seat Belts

The fight began in the 1940s and 1950s. Research showed that seat belts saved lives in crashes. Lowering fatalities and severe injuries would also lower the average insurance premiums.

Many people argued against them since a seat belt can cause internal injuries. They also make it more difficult to escape a burning or underwater car. Cases where seat belts caused more harm than good.

Other opponents said it should be a personal choice instead of a law. Some car owners cut or removed the seat belts. Opposition to seat belts was very strong. These laws were seen as attacks on personal liberty.

This conflict has always existed since the sixties. It came to a boiling point in the 1980s. People called David Hollister names like Hitler for his bill. Others called it media hysteria.

Congress members were sent countless letters railing against seat belts. This caused Congress to block a 1974 bill requiring the interlock mechanism. Gallup polls in 1977 showed that 77% of Americans were against mandatory seat belts.

Then the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration required all vehicles to have passive safety features. The regulation was all vehicles must offer protection to a crash test dummy at 35 miles per hour.

Ronald Reagan was elected with a promise to deregulate the country. His administration revoked it soon after. A Supreme Court ruling reversed it. All of the justices ruled against the Reagan Administration.

What Was Dole’s Rule?

The Secretary of Transport required all manufacturers to include airbags as a compromise. Her regulation required airbags unless two-thirds of states passed seat belt laws by 1989. This is known as Dole’s Rule.

This enabled many automakers to lobby states to create stricter seat belt laws. Many politicians said it was one of the most heavily lobbied bills in history. Big-name brands like Chrysler and General Motors were pushing hard.

This was when New York put in a $50 fine for those who didn’t wear seat belts. Many states made laws that were too lenient to meet Dole’s Rule. This meant that airbags became required in 1989.

Final Thoughts on Seat Belt Laws

Today most of the country has 90% seat belt use. Most people born in the last few decades never experienced the fierce fight. However, there are still many people who are strongly against mandatory seat belts.

Early in his journalism career, Kerry L. Tucker had a revelation: there were not enough experts reporting on law issues. Legal matters are part of daily life. Yet, there seems to be a general aversion towards them. One of the main reasons for this is that the convoluted legal language is difficult for many people to follow. Therefore, he decided to change how the law is perceived by the public. Throughout his career, he met with many people who shared their personal stories with him. Some of these hit him harder. One of the cases that stayed with him and influenced his future career development was a car accident case involving a child. From then on, he decided to zero in on car accident lawsuits.